Zibby is joined by humorist, author, and musician Sandra Boynton to talk about her bestselling book, Good Night, Good Night, which was recently expanded and re-released. The two discuss Sandra’s extensive and illustrious career, from her start selling greeting cards while still in college to her work creating stories and music for children (which she says has never been intended solely for kids). Sandra also tells Zibby about her work ethic and why the best gifts she ever received have been her education and her family.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sandra. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss, oh, my gosh, all of your amazing work, especially Good Night, Good Night, which has recently come out in new form.

Sandra Boynton: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: It’s so crazy, too, because I used to read this book all the time. I have four kids. My twins are now fourteen. When they were tiny, this was our go-to. I’m not just saying this. I guess I could just be saying this, but it happens to be the truth. This would be the book I would read all the time. “Now everybody goes below…” I can’t believe now you’re rereleasing this book slightly tweaked. It’s the same book. Here we are. It’s just crazy.

Sandra: It is the same book. Someone recently said, I loved this book in its longer form when I was little. I thought, oh, that’s right. It did have a longer form that preceded the board book. I went back and looked at it, and it didn’t precede the board book. It was three years later. I was excited to redraw it and revisit it. When I redraw a book, I try very much not to change it significantly, to honor where I was. It’s actually kind of interesting because I go, oh, why did she do it that way? In other words, I’m looking at my much-younger artist self and seeing it afresh, which is fun.

Zibby: Wow. How did you illustrate these pages? Do you do it online? I don’t even have the right questions for this.

Sandra: I don’t have the right answers for it either. It’s actually pretty complex. Originally, obviously, I drew everything by hand. There were not computers and stuff. I do a mix these days. If I’m redrawing something, I actually have to do it on the computer because I need to put the original page and a new page above it so that I’m really following what I did and redoing it. I work very oddly. I just found out, though, that I’m not the only person. I use a mouse. I tried tablets. I didn’t like them. There’s a latency in them that I didn’t like. It’s actually amusing for anyone who visits to watch now, me drawing with this mouse on my desktop looking at the screen, but it’s actually kind of fun. It’s a little bit of a brain tease to do it.

Zibby: Then what about the writing of it?

Sandra: The writing, I follow exactly the way it was written before. In terms of the typography, the great advantage of computers for me is — I used to have to wait for it to be typeset. By the time you saw it, it was too late to change it. In a sense, I’m now doing my own typography and my own separations. It means I’ve gotten much better at it because I can say, oh, this would look great green. Then I try it green. I go, no, that looks terrible green. It’s exciting. It’s really fun.

Zibby: Where did your style come from? It’s so unique and so recognizable. Your characters, you can always tell that they’re part of your family, a character that you do. I know every illustrator must have their own style and everything. How did you come up with this? How have you taken it through the ages? How do you keep coming up with eight million book ideas that are constantly entertaining?

Sandra: Fear of getting a real job is a significant part of that. In terms of style, actually, there’s a quotation that my son sent me a while ago from a famous comic book illustrator. I love this quotation, so it’s now on my desk. I’m going to read it to you. He put it in a frame. Style is the result of the shortcuts and errors in an artist’s approach. I think it’s true. I’m guessing it’s true for other creatives as well. What you can’t do naturally, you find your own workarounds to or your own way. It’s not like you’re saying, I need my own style. I need my own voice. You’re saying, this is the best I can do. I’ve met now, a lot of cartoonists especially who are remarkably skillful. I’m just still not at that level. It’s exciting to see that people can do that. I’m now glad that I couldn’t because I did have to develop my own style. I started selling my own artwork when I was in college. You and I went to the same college.

Zibby: I was going to mention that. Yes, I saw you went to Yale.

Sandra: I was a junior. I created my own summer job because I didn’t want to waitress again. I had an uncle who was a printer. He printed some of my artwork just for gift enclosure cards. There were no messages. He printed them on watercolor paper, so they were just a line. Then I hand-colored them all. I spend the summer hand-painting literally six thousand gift enclosure cards.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Sandra: They were not very complex paintings. Still, that’s a lot. I sold them myself. I continued to sell them as an undergraduate. The master of the former Calhoun College let me put them up in the entryway in a frame for people to contact me and buy them. It goes way back.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so cool. Calhoun had good lunches. I was in Davenport, but I had a friend in Calhoun.

Sandra: It was a great dining hall. It’s interesting how these residential colleges keep their character through the years with zero overlap in the people. It’s fascinating.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. You started out with a leg up from your master in Calhoun. For people listening, that’s the dean. Not a dean, but the head of the residential college, the house parent or whatever. It sounds bad now when you say it out loud. He gave you your start. Then what happened after college? What did you do next?

Sandra: I actually went to grad school in drama.

Zibby: At Berkeley, right? At Berkeley? Did I make that up?

Sandra: I’m sorry, what?

Zibby: Did I make up that you went to Berkeley?

Sandra: Oh, I did. I went to Berkeley. I went to UC Berkeley. I didn’t especially like it there, so I finished one year, took a year off. Then I went to the Yale School of Drama. I was there for a year and a half. I didn’t especially like it there. I have the credit of having dropped out of two esteemed drama schools. By the time I was at Berkeley, I was already designing cards professionally. I had met a company in the summer between college and grad school. I was trying to now sell my designs to someone else to do all the production and selling them to stores. I was so lucky to meet the two — they were very ancient guys who had started the company called Recycled Paper Products. They must have been twenty-six or twenty-seven, pretty open about it. They took over the designs. We were also lucky. The designs took off right away because, as you say, I have my own style. They just didn’t look like anything else in the marketplace. Mike and Phil, the two guys from Amherst who’d started the company, were smart enough to let me do white backgrounds on them, which made them stick out from every other card because nobody did white backgrounds. I was really lucky. I was already established by the time I dropped out of the second graduate school. I was already in a profession.

Zibby: Then when did you turn to books?

Sandra: I’ve actually been doing books since I was a tiny kid. I did my first children’s book, which I didn’t remember, when I was age four. My oldest sister, when she was in college, was doing a report on children’s literature and on the way children draw. She found this old book of mine, four pages long. I’ve now memorized it. It was called A Funny Animal. It goes, “Once there was a funny animal. He had a birthday party. All the animals came. They did not like it, so they left. The end.” It’s kind of a predecessor to Hippos Go Berserk! That sounds like I had an unhappy childhood. I had an excruciatingly happy childhood. I just kept doing drawings and writing. I was lucky to go to a Quaker school in Philadelphia straight through. My dad was a teacher at Germantown Friends. I went from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The arts were the center of the curriculum. It was an excellent academic school. It’s a really wise perception that strength in the arts benefits everyone in every discipline. You could be an art major at Germantown Friends. You could take the subject as seriously as history or as French. I took it more seriously than history or French. There were wonderful teachers. Every year, we had to do a special project. One year, it would be, draw a bestiary, which is a book of imaginary animals. That actually was my first published work. I was fifteen. It was up in the halls of the school. Someone from the Philadelphia Bulletin saw it and asked if they could publish a page highlighting the book. That was my first published work. I made forty whole dollars from that.

Zibby: Wow, hard to spend it all in one place. Have you always wanted to gear your work towards kids? I know not everything is. You have so many brand extensions that you’ve done. Did you always know that you wanted to center things that way?

Sandra: I don’t think my work is just geared at kids at all. I think part of the appeal of my children’s books and the music that I’ve done is that they’re not condescending. They’re just appealing to people.

Zibby: Very true.

Sandra: My greeting cards weren’t for children at all. Where I first became known for cards was just humor. People say, so what’s your profession? I tend to say I’m a cartoonist. I wrote a book a long time ago, Chocolate: The Consuming Passion. It’s a complete send-up. It’s actually a scholarly study of chocolate but done in a very humorous way. It’s funny that people now see my characters and they say these are for kids because they didn’t see them that way. It’s also funny that when I’ve done a book that isn’t for children, that’s humor for adults, it often gets put in the kids’ section. People misread it as being for children. I think the connotation has come with the later success of the books. I don’t think it was always there.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I feel like I offended you with the question. In my mind, obviously, as an adult, I consume what you do as well. There is always some of that to every children’s book anyway.

Sandra: Oh, my goodness, you didn’t offend me in the least. No, it’s a legitimate question. I hope I didn’t sound prickly because I think what you’re saying makes sense.

Zibby: No, no. I didn’t mean to get it wrong. I think about all the many books lined up on the shelf, and that’s how I think of you. Often, that’s not the way authors see it themselves.

Sandra: I certainly know I’m known as a children’s book — I’m proud to be a children’s book author. Who wouldn’t be? No, what you said makes absolute sense.

Zibby: Tell me about moving into the music side of things. By the way, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to — a lot of the books have little musical notes to encourage the reader to sing them. I’ve made up so many songs based on the words, that are so bad, by the way. How did you get into that part?

Sandra: I have four children, as you do. When my youngest was six and went off to a full day of school, finally, something I had always wanted to do and couldn’t with a young child at home was to try to do something about the children’s — I don’t know how to say this diplomatically — do something about children’s music. I wanted to do music that I would like to listen to with my children and that wasn’t condescending and wasn’t cutesy and wasn’t difficult for — I wanted to do something that parents wouldn’t leave the room when it was on. I still hear from people on social media, people who say their kids are long gone and they put the album on in the car and like to listen to it. That matters a lot. I’m trying to work for all ages, but not exactly consciously. I guess it’s mostly because I’m the first audience for them, so I’m just, first and foremost, doing them for me.

Zibby: There’s definitely something super joyful with this sense of humor in everything. It kind of reminds you not to take life so seriously. I feel like that’s the message. I don’t know if you feel like there’s a message.

Sandra: I think so. I don’t know. I read, not that long ago, but it’s now probably fifteen years ago, a quotation I had never seen. All art is self-portrait. It’s attributed to various people. That startled me when I saw it. I go, okay, let me look at my . I was actually pleased. I said, oh, okay, I’m pleased with this self-portrait. I am, by nature, optimistic and playful, little skeptical. You can see that in my animals. If they have a big smile on their face, it’s usually a little bit panicked looking. We’re all in the human condition. Seeing the bright side of things I think is important without it being inauthentic. That’s important to me. Authenticity is a very important thing to me, that you’re not strategizing your message. I’m just trying to be my truest, better self, not my truest self.

Zibby: I love that. Do you all still, all day long, work on craft? How does work fit into life? Which parts of it are you most focused on now? How do you divide all your time?

Sandra: If you asked anyone who knew me, they’d say, including my children — now that my children aren’t home anymore and my husband died seven years ago —

Zibby: — I saw that. I am so sorry.

Sandra: It’s really hard. We were very happy. We were a good team. I tend to work a little, people would say compulsively. It’s just where I can find comfort and meaning. I have a ridiculous capacity for work. I can work twelve to fifteen hours a day and enjoy it. Right now, I’m working on not one, but three calendars for 2023, which is very disorienting in time. When someone says, can you believe it’s already September 2021? I’m going, really, it’s only 2021? It’s a lot of work. I like the detail of it. I’m kind of a process person. It’s why I loved being in a recording — I produced all the songs that are on the albums. I loved being in a recording studio. In a sense, the theater director that I thought I was going to become, I was able to become by going into the recording studios. I think I’ve done seventy-five sessions, maybe more. It’s exhilarating. It’s my favorite place to be.

Zibby: Sometimes it’s just really nice having someone tell you what to do.

Sandra: It is, yes.

Zibby: If I could just wake up, could someone tell me what to do today? Pick out my outfit. Could I go back to that for just a minute? That would be nice.

Sandra: When you find that person, could you loan them to me for just a little bit?

Zibby: I guess we could share this person. I’ll think about it.

Sandra: Good. Fair enough.

Zibby: There is something comforting to that. I’m really sorry about your loss. I read that your husband had cancer. That must have just been the worst.

Sandra: It was the worst. He was an athlete. He was obsessive about his health and his fitness and just the kindest person you’d ever want to meet. There’s no making sense of it, so there it is.

Zibby: What do you do on the hardest days, the days you feel knocked off your feet?

Sandra: I draw. The writing of music really helps. I wrote a song, a serious, not kids’ song, called “Bethlehem Lullaby” last Christmastime. Just suddenly wanted to write it. I got in touch with Mike Ford, who’s the wonderful pianist and computer genius and everything. We’ve done all our albums together. I said, “I want to do this. There’s no time.” Then I asked my daughter. We were all in separate places. It was maybe early December, end of November. We did it remotely and put it together. Then I did it as a simple animation. My skills are very primitive at animation. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of that I’ve done.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Do you ever write in longform to tell a whole story? Would you ever write about what happened? Does that help you, or is it more the visual or the song or the audio?

Sandra: Longform doesn’t seem to be my strength. Even as a student, if there was a twenty-page paper, I’d go, how would you fill twenty pages? Whereas other people say, really, how am I going to keep it to twenty pages? I seem to be a miniaturist. That’s fine with me. It does mean I can grasp what I’ve written or drawn. I can’t imagine being a novelist. How do you know where you are? When you then go to fix it, how do you know — you can’t see the whole shape of it. You can’t experience it as one thing. Whereas with music or with drawing or with an eleven-spread book, you can perceive the whole thing.

Zibby: Now at this point of your life and career and everything else, what advice would you have for an aspiring author or an aspiring illustrator or somebody who wants to get out there and make a difference with what they’re doing in this world?

Sandra: I wish I had advice. For one thing, the publishing world has changed so much. I don’t understand it. Of course, I’m not trying to get started now, so I don’t know what people would do. Really, my advice, it sounds oversimple, but it isn’t. It’s not, know what you want to do. It’s, know what to say no to. That’s more important. Know what you don’t want to do because your time is precious. The corollary to that is to follow your dreams. Saying no to things means you end up with more time and more focus and more room to figure out your next steps and what you want to work on.

Zibby: What do you wish you’d said no to?

Sandra: I’ve been pretty good at saying no to things. I don’t know where I got that from. My parents were wonderful. As I said, my dad was a teacher. My mom was an artist. They had four daughters, no sons. Looking back, I think that was probably, in that era — I was born in the fifties, grew up in the fifties and sixties. An incredibly important thing that — their conscious and unconscious expectations were all on us. That’s of value, that combined with this remarkable Quaker school I went to all the way through. I think people who went to Germantown Friends had a pretty clear sense of where they could help and where they were nourished. That’s the best gift I ever got, is that education and the family I was born into.

Zibby: I could just send this little clip of video and they could put it on their website, maybe, for Germantown Friends, if you want.

Sandra: Perfect.

Zibby: Then you don’t have to help them out the next time. You could just take the clip.

Sandra: That sounds great. I appreciate it.

Zibby: I’ll send you the video. Thank you so much for chatting. Thank you for just so many hours of time where you’ve brought a smile to my face on a darker day and made bedtime and bath time and all that stuff that can be stressful — having this infusion of levity and the sense of humor and understanding that you’re still a person as you’re dealing with the stress of kids has been really, really helpful throughout the years.

Sandra: Thank you so much. I don’t know you, but my impression is you are very much someone who has a good North Star, a sense of who you are and where you need to be. I honor that.

Zibby: Going to make me cry. Thank you. We do what we can. Life is short.

Sandra: We do what we can. It’s a great motto. We do what we can, which is it. That’s all you can do. Do what you can.

Zibby: I will be thinking of you in your studio twelve to fifteen hours a day. I will be here for twelve to fifteen hours a day.

Sandra: Just call me at two AM. We’ll talk.

Zibby: Totally. You can text me. I’ll just be in the same spot.

Sandra: I’ll text you. That’s perfect. It was such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: You too. I’m really sorry again about your husband.

Sandra: Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Sandra: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

GOOD NIGHT, GOOD NIGHT by Sandra Boynton

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